Girl-Watching (A Philadelphia Museum Story)

It can take me forever to get around to tackling projects and situations, big or small. Half the time I never — and I mean never — place them in the completed bin. Hell, probably that’s the way a hefty percentage of us humans roll. I take comfort in believing that I’m far, far from being alone in excelling at procrastination.

Which is my four-sentence preface to announcing that I finally am getting around to knocking a certain something off my to-do list that has been sitting there for nearly two years. I began this blog in April 2015 and almost from the start had it in mind to write a story about La Salle University Art Museum, a little-known institution in Philadelphia on the cute campus of La Salle University. Man, my psychotherapist will be so proud of me for bringing this story idea to fruition. “Neil,” he said at our most recent session, “sometimes I think you enjoy being stuck in cement.” I pondered that for a second and then said, “You’re oh so right, Doctor Cortecks. And, believe it or not, my wife figured that out on the day we met. Which is why she nicknamed me Jimmy. As in Hoffa.” Doctor Cortecks liked that crack so much he waived the session fee.

Anyway, returning to reality, a week ago Tuesday, on a most unseasonably balmy afternoon, I decided that a visit to LSUAM was in order. I hadn’t been there in several years and was in the mood for staring at attractive objects. So, into my car I climbed and headed south from my suburban abode, pretty quickly reaching the nothing-special section of Philadelphia in which La Salle University occupies space and time.

img_1366As I mentioned, La Salle’s campus is cute. And as I walked through sections of it on my way to the museum I had my eyes open for cute girls, girl-watching being one of my fave activities despite my certified status as a semi-ancient geezer. Sadly, I saw only one or two, as the grounds were strangely low on people of either gender. But that was OK, because my plan was to check out the ladies at the art museum . . . those on display, that is. It seemed like not the worst idea in the world to take long looks at the paintings and sculptures of females, and to breeze past all the others. And that’s exactly what I did.

img_1370La Salle University Art Museum is tucked away in the basement of a nondescript building primarily filled with classrooms. The museum is small, seven or eight modestly-sized rooms and a couple of hallways, and its contents are quite good. Me, I like museums of this sort where you don’t have to spend half your life examining the wares. To art lovers in the Philadelphia region I recommend a visit. You’ll get to see beautiful stuff, from ancient times to the present, by famous folks (Tintoretto, the Renaissance great, for crying out loud; Jacob van Ruisdael; Henry Ossawa Tanner; Alex Katz) and lots of equally fine pieces by artists you’ve probably never heard of (click here to find the museum’s website).

I suppose I gazed upon 50 or 60 artworks depicting females. And as I gave some thought to my story theme afterwards, four of those depicted women tapped me on the shoulder and suggested I write a few words about them. I’m often eager to please, so I’ll take them up on it.

img_1379To begin, I was wowed by the natural charm and beauty of Father’s Return, painted around 1850 by Harriet Cany Peale, a Pennsylvanian. In the painting, two kids are excited as can be by the sight of their dad walking towards the homestead. He has been away on business or whatever, probably for several or more days. His wife, though, isn’t looking at him. Instead, her eyes are focused on and dripping with love for her young daughter held in her arms. Hey, hubby can wait! Peale swamped the painting with browns and muted greens. There’s nothing flashy except for the little girl’s orange dress and the mother’s bright lips. Amidst all of that, though, it was the mother’s eyes, nothing more than large, dark dots, that I found myself drawn to. They say a lot.

img_1384The lady featured in Maria Brooks’ The Letter shows us a gaze of another sort. Brooks, a Brit, painted her in 1884.  As the story goes, the woman in question has just read a letter from her seafaring sweetheart. And she misses him plenty, as the aching numbness in her eyes makes most clear. This to me is a really lovely painting. Its tight framing, the limited choice of colors, the way the letter reader’s faintly pink skin melds into her surroundings, are parts of an excellent balancing act. The picture made me feel kind of wistful, which is what I’m sure Brooks meant it to do.

Gazes, eyes and lips . . . we’ll wind up these proceedings with some more comments about them, because I was struck by similarities between two works, a painting from about 1930 by the American modernist Alfred Maurer, and a small wooden sculpture made at an unknown point during the 1900s by an uncredited artist in Africa’s Ivory Coast.

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Maurer’s oil, titled Woman In A Window, is heavily in debt to Cubism, the fractured take on things pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in the early 1900s. Sure, this lady ain’t about to win any beauty contests, but I found her loveable. She’s a happy individual. Just look at those big, smiling eyes and the lips giving out an ooh. I’m going to guess that she’s looking through the window at a fun event, maybe a parade, maybe a bunch of children playing games. And, in my view anyway, the window lady has a close relative at the museum, a sister. Needless to say that’s the woman of the African sculpture, who displays not quite but almost the same expressions as Maurer’s heroine. I saw amazement in her eyes and wonder on her lips. She’s not showing her inner feelings as much as Maurer’s gazer, but she is no less enthralled by whatever it is she’s looking at.

Well, there’s plenty to be said for spending time with works of art. They are open to all sorts of interpretations. They can make you think, make you feel swell, not so swell and everything in between. I drove home from La Salle University Art Museum with more than a few notions and emotions skipping around in my little ol’ head.

 

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